Washington State’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Washington State, in year four under Mike Leach, has finally started to come close to the offensive heights he reached in his years at Texas Tech. The Cougars have one of the most potent offenses in the Pac-12, predicated in large part on a passing attack that throws it, on average, almost 60 times per game. At 58.4 pass attempts per game, Washington State leads the country in attempts per game, and is a full 11 pass attempts ahead of the second place team (Leach’s former team, Texas Tech). Though this offense has drawn some comparisons to California and other schemes that have Air Raid elements, this is a different, purer version of that pass-happy attack.
The Cougars pass the ball on approximately 72% of all downs, which is by far the most extreme pass-to-run ratio in the nation. Per attempt, it isn’t a particularly prolific passing attack, with a fine but not excellent 7.4 yards per attempt. That said, the sheer volume of passes almost assuredly dampens that number slightly — you have to almost think of some of the passes as runs, since so many of them are underneath routes designed to get four or five yards. Where Washington State has really excelled this year is in the red zone. The Cougars score on almost 95% of red zone chances, which is second behind only Utah in the Pac-12.
The Washington State attack is led by sophomore quarterback Luke Falk (6’4, 205). Falk, like virtually ever Leach quarterback before him, is putting up some eye-popping numbers this season, completing over 70% of his passes for 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Obviously, in this offense, if the quarterback is any good he’s going to have some impressive counting statistics, but Falk has shown poise and excellent decision making this year (seven interceptions on 503 attempts this year is a shockingly good number). He has the arm to make the majority of throws on time and on target, but the majority of what he’s asked to do in this offense is dink and dunk over the middle on a variety of slants and screens, which he does with aplomb. He responds fairly well to blitzing, which is another hallmark of this offense, with so many quick passes built into the scheme that it makes it easy for quarterbacks to find the hot receiver. Teams that have been able to pressure with just four have had some success against him, but when teams feel the need to blitz, as Arizona State did last week, he can burn them (he had five touchdowns last week in addition to nearly 500 yards passing). He has taken 28 sacks this year, which is a good amount, but again, you have to take into account that he has dropped back to pass 531 times, meaning he’s only taking a sack once every 19 or so attempts.
Obviously, a huge amount of what has made this offense so prolific this year is the talented receiving corps, led by the three-headed monster of redshirt junior Gabe Marks (6’0, 190), redshirt senior Dom Williams (6’2, 200), and junior River Cracraft (6’0, 200). The three players have combined for 2196 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 171 catches. Marks is the leader and best playmaker of the group, with the ability to make tough catches in traffic and earn extra yards. Williams has some definite big play ability downfield, while Cracraft is more of the reliable possession receiver over the middle. Leach’s offense also throws to the running backs quite a bit, so you’ll also see Falk throw to running backs Keith Harrington (5’8, 180), Gerard Wicks (6’0, 224), and Jamal Morrow (5’9, 190) quite a bit (as a group, the running backs average over nine catches per game). Most often, the running backs are used as screen outlets against the pass rush, but Washington State also likes to split out the running backs into the slot, particularly Harrington, who has 37 catches this season.
Washington State’s offensive line is probably the best its been under Leach, with plenty of returning experience in the starting group, but the Cougars are dealing with a tough injury at the moment. Starting senior left tackle Joe Dahl (6’5, 310) started every game in 2013 and 2014, including all of last year at left tackle, and he has been very good protecting Falk’s blind side this year, but he missed the last game against Arizona State with a possible leg injury and is uncertain for this weekend. The Cougars have experienced talent at basically every position, though. Redshirt senior Gunnar Eklund (6’7, 305) also started every game in 2013 and 2014, including all of last year at left guard, and has also had a very solid season to date. Junior Riley Sorenson (6’4, 319) starts at center for the second year in a row — if you’ll remember, he was on UCLA’s radar during his recruitment and was pretty close to earning an offer. He’s excelled at Washington State. This might sound like a broken record, but, again, at right guard Washington State has another player with a full year of starting experience in redshirt junior Eduardo Middleton (6’5, 310). Finally, Washington State has a relatively inexperienced starter at right tackle in redshirt sophomore Cole Madison (6’5, 303), but even he started four games last season. Like I said above, the group has given up 28 sacks this season, but given the sheer number of dropbacks for Falk, it’s not that crazy of a number. For reference, Brett Hundley once took 52 sacks in a season on far fewer dropbacks. Washington State has a generally good, experienced offensive line that will present a challenge for UCLA’s pass rush.
The running game is worth talking about some. Though the Cougars don’t run it much, Wicks is a pretty decent runner who can run through contact and pick up tough yards. Harrington is a little bit more explosive, with the ability to make guys miss and get to the second level. Morrow, in very limited action, has also been able to hit a few big plays. Teams generally get very surprised when Washington State elects to run, so the Cougars can get a big play or two per game from some defensive inattention. Wicks gets the vast majority of the carries, with good reason, and in another system, he’d probably be a pretty productive back.
UCLA’s defense had probably its best game of the season last week, even if it did come against what was essentially a high school team. The Bruins shut out Oregon State, and the Beavers didn’t really threaten to score in a serious way at any point in the game. UCLA generated a great deal of pressure on Oregon State quarterback Nick Mitchell with just four pass rushers, which led to several interceptions for the Bruins.
Takkarist McKinley had a really nice game, and appears to be growing into an excellent pass rusher off the edge. He took over the game at points not only with his pass rush but also his ability to contain the edge on runs. Kenneth Clark had another very good game in a long chain of very good games, and even though his stats don’t reflect it, he was very disruptive up front.
At linebacker, Jayon Brown has really come into his own over the last few weeks as a starter. He was the best player on the field for the Bruins at times against both Colorado and Oregon State, and he has started to show almost Eric Kendricks-like instincts inside, oftentimes knifing in to make a tackle before anyone else has even recognized the play. Kenny Young, his counterpart inside, is still struggling to make the right decisions. It remains to be seen when Isaako Savaiinaea gets back from a high ankle sprain, and what that will mean for Young starting on the inside.
The story of the game, though, was the exceptional play of UCLA’s secondary. Obviously, UCLA generated a ton of turnovers, which was predicated in large part on very good play in the secondary. The cornerbacks were very good against Oregon State, and, as with Brown in the linebacker corps, UCLA has stumbled upon possibly its best cover corner in Johnny Johnson, who has been excellent in the last three weeks. Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios have also been pretty good, for the most part, and that has helped alleviate the pressure on Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth on the back line, both of whom have struggled at times this season.
Obviously, it’s been a tough season for the Bruins on defense, but with McKinley, Brown, and Johnson emerging, UCLA is starting to look like a pretty talented defense again, and one that has the ability, at least, to hold up against some good offenses in the Pac-12.
ADVANTAGE: Washington State
We’ll give the edge to the Cougars here, but it isn’t as big of one as you might think. UCLA’s big weakness defensively is the inability to stop the run, and Washington State is about as far as you can get from a running team. The Cougars would be foolish not to at least try to run the ball in this one, but you have to imagine Leach is going to do what he does, and that’s pass the ball.
It also helps UCLA that Falk is, legitimately, no threat to run. He’s not even a Mike Bercovici level athlete, so there’s little that the Bruins need to worry about there.
The big key is defending the pass, and that’s something UCLA has done fairly well this year. The secondary has played well in recent weeks, and there aren’t any significant physical mismatches in Washington State’s receiving corps — unlike teams like Stanford or Arizona, Washington State’s receivers are mostly in the six-foot range, which is just about perfect for UCLa’s defensive backs.
We give the edge here to Washington State mostly because UCLA will need to generate pressure on the Cougars with four, and that could be a difficult task against a good Washington State offensive line. If Falk is relatively unpressured, he can absolutely dink and dunk UCLA into oblivion, and for whatever reason, we still have visions of ten-yard cushions dancing in our heads. We have to imagine UCLA will be fairly reluctant to bring extra pressure in this one, since, first, they’ve been relatively unwilling this entire year, and, second, Falk does a nice job against the blitz. That makes it imperative for McKinley and Deon Hollins to have nice games off the edge.
The big issue for us is that Washington State definitely has the ability and willingness to move the ball at five and six yard chunks down the field, and UCLA hasn’t shown the ability to disrupt that kind of attack too often this year. The willingness with which UCLA gave up five-yard gains to Colorado two weeks ago gives us some pause in making a really aggressive choice and giving the nod to UCLA’s defense in this matchup.
Washington State’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Washington State ushered in a new defensive coordinator this offseason in Alex Grinch, a first-year coordinator who spent the previous three seasons as the Missouri safeties coach. He has already made a real impact — Washington State’s defense is considerably better than a season ago, when it was among the worst in the country, and has done a better job of disrupting opposing offenses and giving the Cougar offense a real chance to win some games.
Let’s get this out of the way right now, though: Washington State’s defense isn’t, by the classical definition of the word, good. The Cougars give up 5.8 yards per play, including an average of 5.1 yards per rush attempt, which is just ahead of Colorado for worst in the Pac-12. By most statistical measures, this is a mediocre defense, fluctuating between bad and average depending on the game. That it isn’t the horrible, ugly thing it was last year is a point in its favor, but it’s not a great defense by any stretch of the imagination.
That said, there are a few things that Washington State does relatively well. First, the Cougars are in the top half of the conference in sack percentage, and they get to the quarterback without having to blitz a ton (or at least as much as, say, Arizona State) thanks to some solid defensive line play. Perhaps most impressively, even discounting the sacks, Washington State generates a ton of tackles for loss — currently, the Cougars have 73 tackles for loss, which is the 10th best mark in the country and behind only Arizona State in the Pac-12.
The strength of the defense is that defensive front, which has done a nice job of generating disruptive plays this season. The scheme is, like many in the Pac-12, primarily a nickel look that is mainly a 4-2-5, with a true defensive end, a nose tackle, a defensive tackle, and a rush end who will occasionally drop into coverage. The true defensive end is senior Darryl Paulo (6’2, 255). He has been the primary disruptive player off the edge for Washington State this season with 4.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. At the rush end position, redshirt senior Ivan McLennan (6’4, 233) and true senior Kache Palacio (6’2, 231) have split time, and both have been productive off the edge, with the two combining for nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss. At the two tackle spots, Washington State has redshirt junior Robert Barber (6’3, 307) at the nose and senior Destiny Vaeao (6’4, 298) at the true defensive tackle position. Both are solid players, with Vaeao having some ability as a pass rusher, with two sacks this season. The interesting player to watch is redshirt freshman Hercules Mata'afa (6’2, 242), who backs up Vaeao at tackle. Despite giving up a ton of weight, Mata-afa has been able to use his speed on the inside on passing downs this year to generate five sacks in limited time.
Just because the majority of the sacks have gone to the defensive line (21.5 of the 23 total), don’t fool yourself into thinking the rest of the defense isn’t disruptive. As a group, the defense has generated a pretty astonishing 73 tackles for loss this year, and many of them have come from the linebacker corps, which likes to be aggressive and get up field against the run. Like we said, it’s mainly a 4-2-5 scheme, and the primary linebackers who play will be senior weak side linebacker Jeremiah Allison (6’2, 228) and redshirt sophomore mike linebacker Peyton Pelluer (6’0, 227). Pelluer is the team’s leading tackle and also has 8.5 tackles for loss, while Allison is the team’s second-leading tackler with four tackles for loss and an interception. Both players tend to play aggressively against the run, which can lead to some cutback lanes for disciplined running backs (see: Perkins, Paul). The Cougars don’t rotate their linebackers out a ton, but when they’re off the field, the primary backups are sophomore Frankie Luvu (6’3, 237) behind Allison and redshirt freshman Chandler Leniu (6’0, 261), who’s built like a defensive lineman.
The secondary has been decent enough this year, which is a big step up from absolutely dreadful and trending toward godawful a year ago. The Cougars are allowing a full two yards less per pass attempt this year, which puts Washington State comfortably in the middle of the pack nationally. The lack of explosive pass plays against the Cougars, combined with Washington State’s relatively decent red zone defense, has helped to keep opponent scoring down. The secondary is led by junior free safety Shalom Luani (6’0, 201) who has a great name but also leads the team in interceptions with three, has broken up five passes, and is the third-leading tackler on the team. Redshirt junior nickelback Parker Henry (5’11, 207) has also showing off some playmaking ability, especially against the run, with six tackles for loss this year. Neither of the corners is particularly good, with true freshman Darrien Molton (5’10, 170) manning one spot and true sophomore Marcellus Pippins (5’10, 167) manning the other, but the safety play from Luani and senior Taylor Taliulu (6’0, 205) has helped cover for them considerably.
UCLA’s offense had a really nice performance last week against Oregon State, with quarterback Josh Rosen having one of his best games as a Bruin. His stat-line was excellent, with over ten yards per pass attempt (again), but given that he was playing in the rain, and his receivers dropped at least a couple of big passes, it’s stunning to think what his stat line could have looked like. He’s certainly playing a high level right now, and appears to be peaking at the right time as UCLA heads into the final three game stretch.
The running game was very good against the Beavers last week as well. Paul Perkins still looks like he’s a little slowed by the knee injury he suffered a couple of weeks ago, but he still managed to grind out 89 tough yards last week. Sotonye Jamabo, Nate Starks, and Bolu Olorunfunmi combined for an additional 151 yards on 17 carries, and the Bruins as a group rushed for 284 yards on 52 carries.
UCLA had a couple of drops, including one from Jordan Payton that hit him in the facemask, but we’ll go ahead and chalk that up to the rain. UCLA mostly had a good day through the air, with Payton and Thomas Duarte both looking very productive.
On the injury front, UCLA is likely going to be without Stephen Johnson and Devin Fuller again this week as the two players work back from injury. Duarte has missed much of this week with the flu, and could be questionable for the game as well, which could give more time to some of the freshmen like Alex Van Dyke, Austin Roberts, and Jordan Lasley.
As with the other side of this game, this isn’t as big of an advantage as you might expect. UCLA’s offense is really good, but Washington State’s defense is disruptive, and has seemingly started to gel in recent weeks, with an excellent performance against Stanford’s powerful offense a couple of weeks ago. The Cougars can cause issues with just their front four, so UCLA’s offensive line will have to play very well in this one.
Generally, though, UCLA is playing at a really high level right now, and Rosen in particular has seemed to take his game to a new level. UCLA can absolutely attack the edges of Washington State’s defense with great success, and any situation where UCLA isolates Washington State’s corners with receiver screens and swing passes will probably be a win for the Bruins.
Though Washington State isn’t good against the run, we’d like to see UCLA come out with a short passing attack to build tempo. The Cougars will almost certainly try to stack the box, especially early, and if UCLA fails to generate much on its first few drives, that could put the Bruins in a hole to start out the game against an impressive Washington State offense.
Ultimately, we’ll bet on Rosen making good decisions and having a really good game against an improved, but still pretty mediocre Washington State defense.
Washington State’s special teams are pretty much a disaster. The Cougars have given up four special teams touchdowns this year, including two on kick returns and two on punt returns. They’re actually only giving up about 20 yards per kickoff, but they’ve just been prone to inattention and a lack of discipline at times. Again, Washington State’s prolific offense makes the counting numbers look worse than they are — the Cougars have kicked off 39 times this year — but giving up two kick return touchdowns is pretty bad regardless. So, given that, UCLA definitely gets the edge in kick return coverage.
The Cougars’ kicker is redshirt sophomore Erik Powell (6’1, 193), and he’s been pretty good this year. He’s been pretty good from 40 and in, with just one miss on 11 attempts, and has missed four total out of 18 kicks. He has had two kicks blocked, which speaks again to Washington State’s poor special teams. UCLA’s kicking game has been excellent. Ka'imi Fairbairn has missed just one field goal this year, from 50 yards, and is on the verge of breaking the Pac-12 scoring record. Advantage UCLA.
The punting game is pretty poor on both sides. Freshman Zach Charme (6’1, 192) averages just under 40 yards per punt, same as UCLA’s Matt Mengel, and has had one punt blocked this year. We’ll say this side of the matchup is even.
UCLA, as of the time of writing, is favored by 10.5 points, which seems like a lot from what we can tell. Washington State isn’t really the same team that lost to Portland State and struggled to beat Rutgers. The Cougars have improved quite a bit offensively, and are starting to look semi-dangerous defensively.
UCLA should be able to move the ball fairly well on Washington State, if the Bruins come with a varied game plan that isn’t predicated on stubbornly establishing the run. The Cougars don’t have a good run defense, but they’ll most likely stack the box against the Bruins, which could cause UCLA’s running game some issues. It’s really important for UCLA’s offense to come out hot — if they spend the first couple of drives running into a stacked box, they could find themselves in an early hole, which could be tough to get out of.
The Bruins should be able to throw the ball to the edges and get some yardage with receiver screens and build up some tempo. UCLA has had some success when it looks to pass early to set up the run, and we’d like to see more of that this week against Washington State.
As we said in the first section, this isn’t a bad matchup for UCLA’s defense. Washington State really doesn’t run the ball much, and Falk isn’t a mobile quarterback. If UCLA can generate some pressure with its front four against Falk, and we think the Bruins will be able to with an improved Takkarist McKinley, a healthy Deon Hollins, and the resurgent Aaron Wallace, that’ll go a long way toward shutting down this impressive Washington State passing attack.
We think this will be a close game, and potentially a lower scoring one than many seem to be expecting, but the Bruins ultimately pull it out and stay in control of their destiny in the Pac-12.
Washington State 28